Brownfields law will help, but isn't quite a magic wand

March 06, 2002|By Jay Hancock

AT THIS rate, future archaeologists will think civilization in much of industrial Baltimore ended around 1980.

The ancient Trojans constructed nine cities on top of one another, recycling building sites as needed to stay on the real estate of their ancestors. Modern Baltimoreans stopped after one or two layers and bugged out to Harford County.

In Baltimore, a city of 49,000 acres, some 3,000 acres that once held businesses and factories lie vacant or unused. Partly as a result, Baltimore has lost a tenth of its jobs over the past decade, with predictable fiscal and social consequences.

Reviving the empty commercial land, which has been under a development hex for decades, would reap the triple benefit of boosting Baltimore's tax base, creating urban jobs and slowing suburban sprawl.

A little-noted bill signed by President Bush in January gives the best chance yet to do it. The Small Business Liability Relief and Brownfields Revitalization Act is a "huge impetus" for reinstalling jobs, trucks, lunch pails and forklifts in the city's bare brown parcels, says Maryland environmental lawyer Michael Powell.

Pollution and regulators are what made the city industrial sites taboo. The new law is a promising, not perfect, attempt to put both the nasty chemicals and the government enforcers in their place.

About half of Baltimore's discarded commercial tracts are known to harbor industrial contamination. While the pollution in many cases is genuinely hazardous, overreaction by regulators created an even bigger barrier for redeveloping industrial sites in Baltimore and other cities.

The so-called Superfund Act of 1980 was so devoted to punishing environmental bad guys that it harmed innocent bystanders and doomed even clean parcels to decades of uselessness.

Buyers of land that was polluted decades earlier got nailed by regulators for cleanup costs. You could be prosecuted if sludge from the factory next door leaked onto your property. All industrial tracts became guilty by association.

Even if you were brave enough to buy a former industrial site, you couldn't find a banker willing to finance the project. Even if you found a banker, you couldn't get state environmental inspectors to approve the cleanup plan. Even if the state signed off, there was no guarantee that the federal Environmental Protection Agency wouldn't step in and overrule it.

Ultimately, pollution and prosecution trumped the real estate cliche that location is everything. For many commercial uses there is no better location than central Baltimore, with its fine port, big labor pool, ample water supply and great pipeline of an interstate highway. But the brownfields stayed brown.

The new law, passed after years of debate, increases protection for innocent buyers of polluted land and for owners of property tainted by nearby sites. It also makes it harder for EPA to overrule state cleanup certifications and authorizes $200 million in brownfields redevelopment aid.

The act "is very good," says Evans Paull, brownfields czar at Baltimore Development Corp., the city's economic promotion wing. "It's significantly better than some of the bills that had failed in Congress previously."

Other developments favor brownfields revival, too.

Soil-cleanup technologies become better and cheaper every year. Epidemiologists are recalibrating public health risks, deciding in some cases that less-thorough remediation is OK.

Regulators are getting better at fine-tuning project applications, approving a warehouse, for example, on a spot where a kindergarten might make headlines. Gov. Parris N. Glendening's Smart Growth policies make it harder to put new warehouses and factories willy-nilly across the countryside.

Even so, nobody expects a brownfields boom.

Maryland needs to revise its brownfields code to offer the same protections as the new federal law, and that's not going to happen for at least a year, says Powell, an attorney at Gordon, Feinblatt in Baltimore and the former top lawyer for the Maryland Department of the Environment.

A 1997 Maryland brownfields law offered some safeguards for investors in old industrial sites, paving the way for redevelopment of Baltimore's American Can Co. and Procter & Gamble factories and Montgomery Ward warehouse. But federal law has now "leapfrogged" state law, and Maryland has to catch up, Powell says.

Even the federal act has faults. Some lawyers say it fails to cover petroleum pollution and doesn't offer the same shields to tenants of redeveloped sites that it gives to developers.

And let's face it: It's still cheaper to dig up a soybean field outside Bel Air than clean up a polluted spot in the city. Taxes are cheaper and crime is lower, too.

Urban industrial development still needs all the government aid and tax abatements it can get, including the recently threatened historic tax credit. Powell says the new federal brownfields law is a "huge impetus"; Paull says it's "very good." Those aren't the same things as a magic wand.

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